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Rick Scott's office deleted critical messages related to post-hurricane nursing home deaths

Police surround the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Fla., which had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power. Several patients at the sweltering nursing home died in the storm's aftermath. [John McCall | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
Police surround the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Fla., which had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power. Several patients at the sweltering nursing home died in the storm's aftermath. [John McCall | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
Published Sep. 25, 2017

As Florida continues to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, more confusion builds around the 11 heat-related deaths at a South Florida nursing home following the storm earlier this month.

But a critical issue - whether or not administrators from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County made distress calls for help to Gov. Rick Scott's private cellphone - will likely not be cleared up soon. On Sunday, the Florida governor's office revealed the four key voice mails from the center have been deleted.

"Why not just keep it?" Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, told the Miami Herald. "It's bothersome to say the least. Right now, we're in a he said, she said."

The deleted messages - first reported by CBS Miami's Jim DeFede - pinged Scott's inbox in the 36 hours before the first patient's death, a stretch of time between Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 when the facility lost critical power to its air conditioning system. The center's administrators maintain the calls to Scott were seeking "immediate assistance."

Scott's office, however, says the calls never indicated an emergency, and that the information was passed on to the appropriate state agencies.

But now the voice mails are gone.

"The voice mails were not retained because the information from each voice mail was collected by the governor's staff and given to the proper agency for handling," a Scott spokeswoman said in a Sunday statement. "Every call was returned."

The administration explained the voice mails fells into the legal category of "transitory messages," which under state law can be deleted once they "become obsolete or lose administrative value," the Miami Herald reported. The governor's office said the calls were promptly returned by state officials, who urged nursing home staff to dial 911 in an emergency.

Since the heat-related deaths, both the facility and Scott have been heaping blame in the other direction.

The state has aggressively laid fault on the facility in Hollywood, Florida.

Last week, the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration suspended the nursing home's license after an initial investigation revealed the facility's residents "did not receive timely medical care because the trained medical professionals at the facility overwhelmingly delayed calling 911," AHCA said in a release. "Also, these patients were not timely evacuated to the air-conditioned hospital located across the street."

According to AHCA, patients eventually arrived from the nursing home to the hospital with temperatures as high as 109.9 degrees Fahrenheit, or "far too late to be saved," the agency's statement said.

"This facility failed its residents multiple times throughout this horrifying ordeal," AHCA Secretary Justin Senior said last week in a release. "It is unfathomable that a medical professional would not know to call 911 immediately in an emergency situation."

Court records indicate the initial investigation also suggested nursing home staff may have written late entries in medical records to alter the appearance of the situation inside the facility.

"The facility also entered late entries into medical records claiming safe temperatures for patients while those same patients were across the street dying in the emergency room with temperatures of over 108 degrees Fahrenheit," Senior said.

The investigation into the deaths continue.

"We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for," Jorge Carballo, the facility's administrator, said in a statement earlier this month.

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